Little appetites, big rewards

Appleton entrepreneur grows business from devotion to healthy eating

Posted on Feb 1, 2018 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Amanda Santoro just wanted her babies to eat the same wholesome and organic food she did.

When her first child was born 25 years ago, Santoro, a registered nurse, used her time at home with her baby to make her own baby food. Unhappy with the preservatives and heat treatment of commercially available brands, she saw it as the best way to ensure her child ate as well as she did. She would do the same things for her next two children.

When her fourth child — now 3 years old — arrived, Santoro’s lifestyle was a little different. She was working full-time again and had witnessed a growing interest in eating clean and organic foods. She figured more commercial options would be available this time around and was looking forward to the convenience.

“I just figured the reasons I had for making my own had changed,” Santoro says, recalling a trip to the grocery store to get food for her son. “I looked at the packaging in the store and saw natural ingredients. Then I looked closer and saw that it was still largely the same as before.”

So, it was back to the kitchen again. But this time, another thought had taken hold, and the more she let it simmer, the more she began to see an opportunity. She had no doubt other parents were seeking the same things and had the same concerns.

“I just knew the world around me was eating more organically,” Santoro says. “But there is a gap when it comes to baby food. That gap inspired me.”

That inspiration resulted in the foundation this year of Little Food Co., an organic, fresh and locally sourced baby food company. A graduate of gBETA’s first business accelerator for Northeast Wisconsin, Santoro is selling her products through regional farmers’ markets and a subscription model, and she is in talks with several grocers regarding wholesale distribution.

“Amanda has done really well and is having some great conversations regarding wholesale and other options, including seed funding,” says Adrienne Palm, director of gBETA for Northeast Wisconsin. “She is part of an amazing first group to go through the program.”

gBETA is an accelerator program for local startups offered by gener8tor, a nationally ranked accelerator that offers coaching, mentors and access to angel investors and venture capitalists as part of an intensive program.

Participation in the gBETA program capped an intensive six months for Santoro, where she learned that a lot more goes into launching a business than simply a great idea.

“It’s one thing to make your own baby food,” she says. “It’s quite another when you decide to start a business to make it for others.”

That education began when Santoro secured a spot in the Downtown Appleton Farm Market this past spring, her first foray into selling her handcrafted, small-batch baby foods. Before opening day, she had to secure the use of a commercial kitchen, file a myriad of permits related to food sales and pass the review of local health inspectors.

Vindication came with the repeat customers at each week’s market, as well as the word-of-mouth referrals they were giving her. She officially launched Little Food Co. in June as the buzz around her baby food continued to grow.

“That these people were coming back week after week was a lightbulb moment for me,” Santoro says.

While the outdoor farmers’ market ended in October, Santoro has kept things going with her involvement in gBETA and with her recently launched subscription service. Like many of the subscription boxes on the market — think Birch Box or Home Chef — customers can select the frequency of delivery and the number of meals received for a monthly fee.

With 32 varieties, including seasonal favorites and unique combinations such as watermelon-carrot, a subscriber receives the designated number of 4-ounce, vacuum-sealed meals in intervals of two, four or six weeks. A 12-meal subscription, for example, costs $35 per delivery date.

The potential for wholesaling through regional grocery stores also excites Santoro. In addition to growing her customer base, she looks forward to the educational opportunities of in-store demonstrations, something that draws on her work in nursing as well.

“Being a nurse, there are always opportunities to educate,” Santoro says. “This is that same opportunity. I really like the opportunity to show them the product and explain why and how it’s made.”

But if the last seven months were hectic for Santoro, the next few promise to be even more so. As her business grows, and she looks at scaling up, she also must make some decisions to maintain that work-life balance she has always tried to achieve.

Santoro still works full-time as a nurse, though her practice has shifted more to homecare patients and is flexible, which allows her time with family. But production for Little Food Co. requires her to spend several nights a week in the commercial kitchen space she leases. That growth will also mean adding staff, expanding her network of local, organic suppliers, and changes to accommodate time spent with family. 

Not that she is complaining. Armed with the information and support she gleaned from the gBETA program, Santoro is optimistic about the possibilities the future holds.

“I learned so much. I was like a sponge. I just loved all the new ideas and the practices I was exposed to,” she says. “I have a lot of fun creating new things. I’m at a pivotal point right now, and I’ve been exposed to some great opportunities. We’ll be unveiling our direction soon and I’m excited for me and my family.”